Event ReportsPublished on Jul 03, 2021
The China Question: The Party, The Propaganda, and The Schools
Mr Jo Johnson in conversation with Dr Samir Saran The rise of China and its increasingly aggressive posturing has put the spotlight on unexpected quarters—its student community and academic engagement. After completing their graduate work, some students secure jobs at cutting-edge technology firms in the West, and fears have been expressed on potential national security threats posed by Chinese students, especially the ones working in the sciences. Research collaboration between the UK and China has increased significantly over the years. Now a study titled, ‘The China Question’ led by UK’s former Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, proposes strong measures to oversee the relationship between the two nations. Since the reforms in the late 1970s that opened up the insular Maoist economy to the world, China has encouraged youngsters to study abroad and utilised this human capital for the nation’s benefit. Opening the discussion, Dr Saran pointed to the Chinese axiom mentioned in his book ‘Pax Sinica’ of “borrowing a boat to cross the river”’ which denotes co-opting existing institutions like premier educational institutes to China’s advantage. Mr Johnson said the key motivation for delving into the study was that UK’s research institutions were its knowledge assets. He disclosed that China’s research partnership with the UK was increasing, and it stood second in the scientific collaboration rankings after the US. Mr Johnson revealed that while most “impactful research between UK and China was being done in material science, automation and telecommunication, adding that there needed to be an extensive evaluation of the benefits accrued to both nations to ascertain who benefitted most from the collaboration, and how research breakthroughs were used. Amongst the measures mooted to map the challenges arising from the interaction between UK’s higher education and research facilities with their counterparts in China are an annual risk assessment disclosure of the UK’s dependence on other countries across different areas of research and development, and a “traffic light mechanism” to alert policymakers with respect to dependencies in specific areas of research. But such steps can be seen as government interference in education sector, and politically controversial especially in liberal democracies. Dr Saran drew attention to the practice of China enticing academic in their personal capacity with blandishments like financially rewarding assignments to engage with the Chinese regime. Mr Johnson asserted that universities must protect academic freedom appropriately when dealing with China, and that academic freedom was a sine qua non of the West’s education system, and it would not be subordinated to expectations of  political correctness or the Party line from Beijing. He warned of the potential of using lucrative research partnerships, academic exchange agreements and training programmes based in China as bargaining chips by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He posited that these “incentives” that the CCP dangles could persuade leaders of academia to strike a balance between the freedom of teaching faculty to raise issues related to the security law in Hong Kong, the crackdown on students in 1989 at the Tiananmen Incident, the plight of ethnic groups in Tibet and Xinjiang, and the corruption within the CCP. He supported the right of academics to speak on issues that China considers as “no-go zones”. He warned that if on account of UK’s relationship with China circumscribed the freedom of educators, then it would mean a threat to the values enshrined in liberal democracies. He said that protecting academic freedom is a joint responsibility of universities, governments, regulators, financial donors amongst others, and that enforceable provisions should be written into contractual agreements on issues like freedom of speech to deter China. Since publication of the report, a unit within the department of business, energy, and industrial strategy called the ‘Research Collaboration Advice Team’ has been established to assist researchers with partnerships, at the same time protect them on issues related to export control and protection of intellectual property. Regarding an appraisal of China by Britons, Mr Johnson said the relationship between the two nations with respect to higher education has been below the radar in public mind. He admitted that there was not much awareness on issues related to the dependencies on Chinese research institutions and financial income accrued to UK from Chinese international students. The report also proposes the need for Western democracies to evolve a consensus in the fields of academic research. Mr Johnson theorised that while having a broad accord between the US, EU and India was difficult to achieve in the short term, but there was increasing awareness that China was taking steps to counter the US in the field of higher education. He predicted that with China taking strides to become a knowledge economy and using education as a soft power outreach all nations would eventually see the need to have a plan. The former minister cautioned regarding extreme responses to China’s influence like complete decoupling or trustingly embracing. He maintained that people-to-people links in the education sector were certainly needed to make most of the opportunities for cooperation with a superpower taking giant leaps in research and development, while mitigating security risks. On the prospects of UK-India cooperation, Mr Johnson declared that both nations were on the trajectory of improving their bilateral relationship starting in the sphere of trade. The former Universities Minister expressed hope with respect to India’s efforts to make it easier for reputed international educational institutes to set up campuses here. He advised that more investment and greater autonomy of institutions would give a boost to international collaborations, which will drive up research. Dr Saran concluded by welcoming more British investment in India’s higher education institutions. He also put forth a proposition regarding greater synergy between UK and India, spelling out the possibility of Mumbai playing host to UK’s largest university.
This report was written by Kalpit A Mankikar
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